Varda, Agnes: Celebrated French New Wave Director Dies at 90

Agnes Varda, a leading figure of the French New Wave, who had directed such films as Cléo From 5 to 7, Vagabond and most recently the Oscar nominated docu, Faces Places, has died. She was 90.

Varda’s death from breast cancer at her Paris home was confirmed Friday by her family. “The filmmaker and artist Agnes Varda died from a cancer at her home in the night of March 29, 2019, surrounded by her family and friends,” the family’s statement said, describing her as a “joyful feminist” and “passionate artist.”

Last month, the director presented her latest film, “Varda by Agnes,” at the Berlin Film Fest and received the honorary Berlinale Camera award.

Varda had films in competition at the festival four times, winning the Grand Jury Prize in 1965 with “Le Bonheur.” But as ill health overtook her in recent weeks, Varda canceled the masterclass she was scheduled to deliver at the Qumra event in Doha, Qatar, earlier this month.

The news of her death drew swift tributes to her indomitable and curious spirit.

“Varda’s gone, but Agnes will still be here. Intelligent, lively, sweet, spiritual, laughing, comical, unexpected as is her work,” former Cannes Film Festival president Gilles Jacob tweeted, adding that Varda’s “movies are our treasure. A national treasure: that of the French spirit.”

Varda’s acclaim spanned decades, beginning with her 1955 feature debut, “La Pointe Courte.”

Varda’s oeuvre bore an unmistakably personal stamp, revealing dimensions of her own psyche at the time they were made.

She was awarded an honorary Oscar, a Governors Award, in 2017, becoming the first female director to receive such an accolade.

With ironic modesty, Varda described herself to a German interviewer as “a little queen at the outskirts of film.”

Varda was born to a Greek father and French mother in Brussels, Belgium, but the family moved to southern France during World War II. The young Agnes grew up with an abiding interest in the arts, literature and photography, which wound up informing her work throughout her long career. “Photography has never ceased to teach me how to make films,” she once said.

When she made her debut, “La Pointe Courte,” a romantic melodrama, she had little experience.  The film was edited by Alain Resnais but was not universally acclaimed.

Varda remained the only female member of the Nouvelle Vague (New Wave), and as an outsider because of her gender, she became a champion of women’s place in the male-dominated film industry–and society.

Her iconoclasm also meant that she did not shy away from addressing taboo topics such as sex and death in her work, which exhibited a formal daring that retains the ability to astonish, with her use of the camera, cuts and montages, the mixing of documentary and fiction. Varda’s best-known and most commercially successful film, 1962’s “Cléo From 5 to 7,” follows a glamorous singer through the streets of Paris almost in real time as the woman awaits the results of a cancer test – an eerie foreshadowing of Varda’s own death from the disease nearly 60 years later.

Varda married fellow filmmaker Jacques Demy, the director best known for of “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” in 1962. The couple moved to California toward the end of the decade, when Demy was hired to make “Model Shop,” and together they made Los Angeles a regular base throughout their lives. (Demy died in 1990 of AIDS.)

While there, Varda associated with Dennis Hopper and Andy Warhol, and filmed a Black Panthers protest demanding the release of Huey P. Newton. She never worked in Hollywood, preferring to carve out her own path.

Varda received an Oscar nomination for her 2017 road movie, Faces Places, a traveling docu she co-directed with French graffiti artist JR. The film follows the odd couple as they go from one village another, where they meet the local residents, coal miners, truck drivers and cheese makers. 

It was a logical follow-up to Varda’s previous movies, “The Gleaners and I” in 2000, and “The Beaches of Agnes” in 2008.

In December, upon receiving a career tribute at the Marrakech Film Fest, Varda spoke of her goal to shine a spotlight in her films on marginal people of society: “There are thousands of people who are fighting to survive, to find some work, to receive a decent salary, to get a little dignity, and a little bit of happiness, and million of human beings who are seeking refuge.”